Instruments | Mandolin | Stringed

The mandolin is a small, teardrop shaped, plucked stringed instrument. Its most famous form is the Neopolitan mandolin, beloved of all romantics for its use on Venetian gondolas. It is descended from the lute and, since its rejuvenation in the nineteenth century, has remained a popular and versatile instrument.


The mandolin developed from the Italian mandola. The mandola and its French equivalent, the mandore (not to be confused with the mandora: a bass lute commonly used for continuo accompaniments in eighteenth-century Germany), was a small lute used in the sixteenth century. Lutes, however, used six courses, each made up of a pair of strings tuned to a characteristic pattern of fourths and thirds. By contrast, the mandola had only four courses and was tuned in patterns of perfect fourths and fifths.

Development of the Mandolino

The mandolino retained its popularity through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and hardly altered its form. Like the lute, its body had a rounded back and flat front with a rosette inserted into the soundhole, to which was attached a fingerboard with eight or nine gut frets tied around the fingerboard to stop the strings.

The mandolino received its first major reworking in the mid-1800s at the hands of the Monzino family in Milan. The body was increased in size and the overall instrument strengthened. The frets were changed from gut ties to inlaid metal or bone rods and increased in number to about 20. This instrument became known as the Milanese mandolin.

Standard performance technique on the lute was to use the fingers to pluck the strings, and it is clear that the mandolino was initially played in the same manner. During the eighteenth century, though, players began to use a plectrum to sound the strings. This characteristic performance technique was first carried out using quills, either attached to the index finger or held between thumb and index finger. By the beginning of the twentieth century this style of playing had become the norm and it remains one of the mandolin’s distinctive features.

Neopolitan Mandolin

The Monzino family’s development of the Milanese mandolin in the 1800s was complemented by Pasquale Vinaccia of Naples who, in 1835, built a mandolin that has remained the standard to this day.

The Vinaccia family had been active in instrument-making for several years and in 1740 its members built a four-course mandolin tuned in perfect fifths, as opposed to the mixture of perfect fourths and fifths common to the mandolino. The particular selling point of the Vinaccia mandolin was that it was tuned in exactly the same way as a violin: g–d'–a'–e''. This meant it was immediately accessible to musicians who were not specialist lutenists, and the Vinaccia model quickly spread through Europe.

Neopolitan Mandolin in Performance

The small size of the mandolin meant that it had little resonance, so notes decayed very quickly. The polyphonic style of music played by lutes meant this had never previously...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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